Is there an abattoir so lethal as Chinese history? During Mao’s Great Leap Forward, the economic and social restructuring plan that began in 1958, it is estimated that up to 45 million people died, mostly from starvation. Such figures are beyond comprehension. This is killing on an industrial level, except the cause of these deaths was intimate, personal, agonizing.
Chinese literature is vast and rich, so it is possible there are giants of the novel who have addressed this ocean of death — and the trauma that travels on its ripples — with boldness and grace who are not yet known in English. Among the writers we have available to us in this country, however, none has returned Chinese history to human scale (if not always in human form) quite so vividly as Mo Yan.
When he won the Nobel Prize in October, Yan was criticized — within China and especially in the West — for his relationship to the Communist Party. His lack of protest against the current government’s imprisonment of writers and artists was also noted. Salman Rushdie called him “a patsy of the regime.” Herta Müller, the 2009 laureate, whose novels date back to the time she spent in Romania living under Nicolae Ceausescu’s dictatorship, called his selection a “slap in the face for all those working for democracy and human rights.”
There are ironies within ironies here, however. Mo Yan is actually a pen name — it means “don’t speak” — of Guan Moye, who was born in 1955 in Gaomi County in the Shandong Province. He was 11 when the Cultural Revolution began, and his pen name comes from a warning his parents gave him as a child, when a loose tongue could get you killed. He clearly didn’t listen, for Yan emerged as a writer in the 1980s and his books speak loudly, boldly, blackly, hilariously, about Chinese political and sexual history.
While it is a gross reduction to read Yan’s novels as criticism in code, they are certainly not the work of a patsy. “Life and Death are Wearing Me Out” (2006) conjures a benevolent landowner who is executed so his land can be redistributed. He is then reincarnated as a donkey, an ox, a pig, a dog, and finally a monkey. He experiences, through these bodies, the shame and abuses and violence of the revolutionary upheavals of China in the 20th century. “Frog,” an as-yet-untranslated novel set in more contemporary times, tells the tale of a midwife who witnesses the clandestine, sometimes forced abortions of daughters by women desperate to have a male heir for their husbands. Has there been such a straightforward look at the one-child policy and its hidden collateral damage?
Yan’s work is not realistic. It is magical, Rabelasian, satirical, steeped in blood, and obsessed with food in uncomfortable ways. In “The Republic of Wine,” an inspector who has been sent to the fictional province of Liquorland, where decadence has been reportedly occurring on a grand scale, goes on a bender and cannot tell whether the roasted meat he eats at a drinking duel is pork or human.
In “The Garlic Ballads,” a group of farmers who have been driven by the government to plant the herb revolt when the market becomes glutted, and they begin to starve. Woven into this tale is a family epic, in which men bend and break under stress and beatings, and women – in turn – absorb the redirected hatred of humiliated men.
Caught between the burdens of motherhood, and the compressive cruelties of various forms of government, Yan’s female characters are bold survivors, tricksters, steely-tough. They also speak their minds. Of all Yan’s heroines, however, two are most extraordinary — Mother, who gives birth to eight women and finally a male heir in the masterpiece, “Big Breasts and Wide Hips,” and Sun Meiniang, the voice behind “Sandalwood Death,” one of two new books Yan is publishing this month.
“Sandalwood Death” borrows its form and story from a Maoqiang opera that was well known in Northeast Gaomi Township where Yan grew up. The action unfolds against the backdrop of the Boxer Rebellion (1898-1901), a revolt led by farmers and craftsmen against imperial creep in northern China that claimed over 100,000 lives. Sun Meiniang’s father, an opera singer, was a leader of the uprising. The government captures him and plans to execute him by sandalwood death, or crucifixion with some added effects.
Sun Meiniang has three male figures in her life to whom she can appeal, and over the course of the novel she tries her best to save her father’s life. Her husband, a butcher, is useless.Continued...